Tobias Jones - Utopian Dreams

Rating 7.2

I was extremely critical with Tobias Jones while reviewing his debut The Dark Heart of Italy. Being myself Italian you may think that I got somehow offended by what Mr Jones wrote there. On the contrary, I thought that Tobias was way too soft in tolerating some aspects of my home-country which need to be despised, especially by a journalist.
I mean, am I wrong or the title of the book is The Dark Heart of Italy and not The Jolly Dark Heart of Italy or something?

Alas, Tobias Jones fell victim of that "Audrey Hepburn's Roman Holiday Complex" which may lead English-speaking authors to match unpleasant aspects of contemporary Italy with reminiscences of a long gone "dolce vita".
The final result was a journalistic-like insight on Italy where, say, corruption in politics went along with tasty food, religious superstition walked hand in hand with enjoyable (?) football, social problems flirted with old picturesque traditions. And so on.

This tendency of forgiving Italy for all of its recent sins is understandable in the occasional Anglo-Saxon holiday-maker who keeps on saying that "oh, it's such a lovely, delightfully country to live in: the sun, the people, the art, the wine!", but less justifiable in the work of a foreign correspondent. That's why I was very harsh with Tobias and that Italian fairytale of him even more considering how Mr Jones showed (and spoiled) some sharp thoughts and interesting potential in The Dark Heart of Italy.

Now it's time to be fair.
My expectations when I bought Utopian Dreams for 49 pence in a YMCA shop were all about having an indignant laugh reading some sort of retro hippie rubbish mixed up with the new wave of biological spiritualism which raised up in the 1990s.
I could imagine Tobias Jones rolling the sleeves of his shirt and spotting his tank suit with stinky mud while tilling his own vegetable garden under the pouring rain somewhere up in Cumbria and quoting Thoreau in the process. I could easily picture the Oxford educated handsome intellectual writing about the joy of growing his own cucumbers and contemplating the corns on his hands in the candlelight after a hard day's work.
Well, I was wrong. And the times I laughed while reading this book were because Jones turned up to be a very good observer, not a true believer although he later converted himself to a sort of bucolic life managing a ten acre woodland shelter in Somerset.

What surprised me more is that almost five years after its publication, nobody in Italy gave Utopian Dreams a chance. Oddly enough, but this book has not yet been translated into Italian. Which is very stupid thinking how most of the communities Jones went to are in Italy.
Actually, calling "communities" the places Tobias Jones chose to live in for a while and write about here doesn't make them any justice.
What links places like the Tibet-inspired eco-hi-tech Damanhur on the first spurs of the Alps with its huge subterranean temple including "the biggest Tiffany glass cupola in the world" with the Catholic hard-laboring microcosm of Nomadelfia in Tuscany where money and advertising are banned is the feeling of "being good people" of those who dwell there. That and the adoration for the almost mythological leadership of the founders of both communities.

Tobias Jones did a very good job in writing about the daily life and genesis of the communities he selected, both in Italy and the UK. He sometimes played the naive one, sometimes not. He raised questions and waited for answers without jumping to obvious conclusions. The only thing that seems pretty unclear to him - and he admits it was - is what he was looking for. Why he chose to visit "Libera Terra" in Sicily (an association farming lands confiscated to the Mafia) and not "San Patrignano" (a little town for the rehabilitation of drug-addicted people) in Romagna or "The Elves" up on the Appennine mountains (some hippie Luddites living of agriculture and bargains)? For Libera Terra, after all, is not technically what one may call "a community" but rather a brave project with a solid principle behind.

The same mild criticism to this book could be raised while talking about the Utopian dreams which Jones selected in the UK. The Quaker village in the Yorkshire looks more like a retirement garden city for the wealthy than a good example of self-sufficient, self-indulgent community while the solidarity-driven Pilsdon in Dorset makes more sense but - once again - seems like a random word of mouth choice. What about the bunch of Tolstoyan fundamentalists of the Whiteway Colony in the Cotswolds? And what about an Irish travelers' camp? Are gypsy communities not enough Utopian to be reported here?

Alright, now I'm kind of joking but perhaps the only problem of this otherwise clever book is the arbitrariness of the examples Mr Jones brought to his narrative. Utopian Dreams is well researched, funny and often a pleasure to read, but I think there was room enough for more cases.
Some may say that this book lacks of a specific goal, but I think Tobias Jones got a point in never trying to convince anyone on what is right and what is wrong but simply reporting what he saw, heard and did.


Calf Curse

I was called a muscle strain
I am the twist in the court, the sharp stroke.
Call me not cramp, please, I am more
Than the minor injury after a crooked jump
I am the jarring and piercing note
of a fiddle played upside down.
I mean pain, I do hurt.
(now hearken to me)
Where you walk, I stalk and – mind it!
When I get there, you're bound to crawl
Whoever you are, down on your knees!
(if you manage to do it).
Understand this: no more track and fields
You rickety little thing sucking dry ice
One leg and a half minus a hamstring
borrowing clutches but unable to rise.
Call me names if you want, I swore
I was the faulty leap, I tame the limp.
I am the balance you lost and seek.


Tibor Fischer - Under the Frog

Rating 7.2


I used to play basketball in the same team for around 10 years in a row from childhood to the mid-teens. Those were glorious days.

My team was named Polisportiva Lame (quite funny for English speaking ears, isn't it?) also known as Pol.Lame (pollame meaning "poultry" in Italian) and we were very consistent players.
Years passed by and we were always standing at the bottom of our league.
Nevertheless, I was passionate or masochist enough reporting the scores of all our matches on a pocket calendar. But I don't need to find out where one of those pocket calendars ended up for reporting that once we lost a match 196-30.
Ok, ok our opponents in that match were the junior team of the then Euro dominating Virtus Bologna and it's true how 3 or 4 of them became first-league players in the following years, but still we were dedicated losers overall.
Around 20 of our 30 points came from free throws and one of the five or six baskets we managed to get in 40 minutes came along with jubilant cries of "I scored against Virtus!, I scored against Virtus!" while towering Virtus players kept on dunking on the other side of the court.
I didn't scored a point in that match.

Between 17 and 24 I spent countless summer afternoons at the basketball playground but never thought about joining another team: perhaps I couldn't find any which had the right losing spirit I liked.
When I lived in The Netherlands I tried to join a local team, The Eagles, but after writing down a first enthusiastic account not so much happened. Perhaps the fact that the training sessions were held in Dutch didn't really help.

A couple of weeks ago, I joined a basketball team based in Witney, Oxfordshire, UK together with a German workmate of mine, Martin. It turned out that the team changed its very self-ironic name (Witney Houstons) into the way more serious Wolves. I immediately understood how that losing spirit I was desperately looking for got lost, but had a terrific first training. The Wolves are guys who really love the game. It has to be said how being fond of basketball in the UK is just like loving cricket in Italy or rugby in the US: a passion against all odds, a little bouncing perversion.

"So have you watched any NBA video for inspiring you at this time? - Martin asked me while driving in the dark from Oxford to Witney.
"Oh no I didn't have the time today, but I started reading a book about basketball".
"Ah, really? And what's the book about?"
"Oh well, I've just begun it, but it's some fiction revolving around a basketball team"
"In Hungary".
"In the 1950s".
"It's not too bad, though".
"I see. And what's the title of the book?"
"Under the Frog. I know. It doesn't sound very promising".
"Well...who knows? Perhaps it's a British way of saying or a specific play they have here"

Actually, "Under the Frog" stands for the polite short form of "under the frog's arse at the bottom of the coal pit" which, Wikipedia tells me, is a a Hungarian expression used to describe any situation when things can't seem to get any worse.

And things got indeed worse on that night as my second training with the Wolves left me with a muscle strain in my left hamstring. But there was a little stroke of luck in my injury. Being unable to walk and sit down for more than 10 minutes, meant that I had to take a day off from work and got plenty of time to read Under the Frog while lying on the bed.

I liked this novel, but I'm afraid I cannot put it on my favourite shelf.
English-born Mr Fischer took a lot of his narrative ideas for this debut novel from his Hungarian parents who were both professional basketball players in their homecountry before leaving Hungary behind after the failure of the 1956 Revolution.
Whereas the basketball related parts of the book are not always convincing with a few surreal matches won by the guys of the Locomotive team where the two protagonists Gyuri and Pataki play, there is much to save in Under the Frog.

The last chapter is sublime, poignant and informative and all thorough the novel one can find both good humour and pretty trivial jokes, which somehow never trespass the coarseness line. I read some reviews around and it seems like many readers found Fischer using uncommon terms and chiselled sentences, but I didn't have this impression. At the contrary, I would have liked finding more Magyar words and authentic Hungarian stuff here and there.

I don't know if I will ever reread this book, but now that I'm done with it I feel like Tibor Fischer made a good job, delivering an interesting novel where basketball stands on the background being largely forgotten at the end.
I saw the point of this choice and I will not criticize it. My only concern is that the same departure from basketball could happen to me, now that my hamstring still pains an awful lot.


Timothy Garton Ash - Facts Are Subversive

Rating 7.3

What we have here is a very good collection of articles, political essays, book and movie reviews along with public speeches turned into ink on paper by Timothy Garton Ash (TGA), one of those fellows teaching at Oxford University and being rather proud of it.

Facts Are Subversive could have easily ended up as a messy pot-pourri of intellectual exhibitionism, but luckily it stands far from it thanks to a very clever editing. The idea of putting a world map at the beginning of the book with the titles of Garton Ash's writings matching up with the places they spoke about is simple and brilliant at the same time, just like the way this book is subdivided into sections and chapters.

That said, I found more convincing Garton Ash as an historian and a political writer than as a cultural reviewer, but I think it's good he shows up some interest in contemporary culture and not only in an often dry world of first-class academics.

Moreover, Mr Garton Ash is clearly more at ease and on his favourite ground when writing about Britain and Europe than the times in which he delivers articles on Burma, Brasil or the US. What I liked the most here are the essays on whether Britons and - more specifically - Englishmen consider themselves Europeans or not.
Less interesting, by my point of view, is the article dedicated to a meeting Garton Ash had with Aung San Suu Kyi, mainly because it dates back to 2000 and is way too old considering how many things happened in the life of Mrs Suu.

The review of Orwell's opera omnia is entertaining to read although Garton Ash cannot simply say - as he does - that apart from Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia nothing else that Eric Arthur Blair wrote is masterful. I found puzzling how after self-declaring himself "a fan of Orwell", TGA never mentions "Down and Out in Paris and London" or "Coming Up for Air" or "The Road to Wigan Pier" among the author's literary production that could be worth to get and read.

Besides, the idea that Evelyn Waugh or Joseph Conrad "were consistently better writers than Orwell" is absolutely a moot point, I think.
Still, Timothy Garton Ash is a pretty good and engaging writer and not as much conservative as I would have thought.


Samuel Beckett - Waiting for Godot

Rating: 6.0

I read this play three or four years ago and then watched it a couple of times on a theatre stage. Both of the times I fell asleep. Such is the deep influence of absurdism on me.

And yet, tonight Godot came back again. I mean, metaphorically, as he never found the decency of showing up.
I dreamt they made a Broadway rock musical based on this cornerstone of a play.
Now it's hard to remember how the whole show went on, but I'll try to do my best in reporting a rough account of my dream.


Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He opens The Kinks' songbook and moans:

'I'm so tired
Tired of waiting
Tired of waiting for you

I'm so tired
Tired of waiting
Tired of waiting for you

I was a lonely soul
I had nobody till I met you
But you keep-a me waiting
All of the time
What can I do?'

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.
As before. Enter Vladimir. He is Tom Waits.
(don't you think he is perfect for this role? He's Waits. He waits. For Godot).

Advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart.
Vladimir broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon:
'So there you are again'.
He starts singing using a carrot as a microphone.
He mumbles an old hit by The Sonics.
Estragon makes the chorus parts (-)

'It's too late (it's too late)
You lied (you lied)
Now you (now you)
Will fry (will fry)
It's better (it's better)
Than hate him (than hate him)
He's waiting (he's waiting)
He's waiting (he's waiting)
For you, wowww'.

A terrible cry, close at hand. Estragon drops the carrot.
They remain motionless, then together make a sudden rush towards the wings. Estragon stops halfway, runs back, picks up the carrot, stuffs it in his pocket, runs to rejoin Vladimir who is waiting for him, stops again, runs back, picks up his boot, runs to rejoin Vladimir.
Huddled together, shoulders hunched, cringing away from the menace, they wait.

Enter Pozzo and Lucky. Pozzo drives Lucky by means of a rope passed round his neck, so that Lucky is the first to enter, followed by the rope. Lucky whispers a melancholic version of "Tainted Love":

'Sometimes I feel I've got to
Run away I've got to
Get away
From the pain that you drive into the heart of me
The love we share
Seems to go nowhere
And I've lost my light
For I toss and turn I can't sleep at night'.

Pozzo (with magnanimous gesture):
'Let's say no more about it. (He jerks the rope.) 'Up pig!' (Pause.) Every time he drops he falls asleep'. (Jerks the rope.) 'Up hog!'

Coup-de-theatre! Pozzo is actually Lou Reed. He's dressed up in velvet.
Pozzo turns a sunglassed glance to Vladimir and Estragon.
Then begins to hum:

'Oh pardon me sirs, it's the furthest from my mind
I'm just lookin' for a dear, dear friend of mine
I'm waiting for my man
Here he comes, he's all dressed in black
Beat up shoes and a big straw hat
He's never early, he's always late
First thing you learn is you always gotta wait I'm waiting for my man'

End of the first act.

Regretfully enough, I woke up during the interval. Which is funny, because it's exactly the same moment in which someone shook me calling me a sleepyhead both times while watching Godot live at the theatre.
My apologies for being unable to tell you how what happened in the second act of my dream. What I assume is that even in the Broadway rock musical version Mr Godot deserted the stage perhaps adducing some rehab engagement with a press release projected on the background.
Semi-quoting Vladimir/Tom Waits: "Godot's away on business".


Herta Müller - The Land of Green Plums

Rating 7.7

Reviewing this book is all but an easy task. I devoured these green plums and am still hungry after that although they were far from being tasty and what they left is bellyache, malaise and discomfort.

And yet, I think that there is no better antidote than swallowing the unripe venom into these green plums picked up by Herta Müller for winning over apathy and resignation.

Ceausescu's Romania was indeed a horrible place to live and even worse if your mother tongue was German and you were the son or daughter of a former SS soldier as miss Müller was.
One of the worst post World War Two tragedies is, in fact, the impact the conflict had on redrawing not only the European borders, but the way some countries started to think about themselves: monochromatic. And there where red was the primary color there are dozens of minor Diasporas which left local communities isolated in a sea of hatred.

The German speaking Swabians living in Romania were one of these communities engulfed in the flames of the craziest dictatorship of the Eastern bloc. But one cannot forget the Poles who found themselves in USSR, the Turks who ended up in Bulgaria or the Germans whose towns became Polish. Not to mention that sort of hazardous melting pot called Yugoslavia which erupted in the 1990s.

I was just a 7 years old kid when Ceausescu was dethroned and it's interesting how I have clearer memories of his fall in December 1989 than the demolition of the Berlin Wall which had begun one month earlier.
I do remember the livid face of the Romanian dictator and his wife thrown on the tar after their farce trial and execution as shown on television. Or so I think. I never had nightmares. That man was evil - I was probably told - and he got what he deserved.

Here Herta Müller mentions the former cobbler only twice, preferring to call him "The Dictator" and not too often. This is not the story of a personal resistance against Niculae Ceausescu, but against the way of thinking, behaving, reporting and vilifying that took over Romania during its last dictator's rule.

There is little surprise that some found this novel hard to tolerate because of its hopeless despair. That is the way it was. But actually I think that this book, despite all of its grimness, has plenty of joyful intimate moments showing how life could go on in hell.

The closest literary comparison I can find is with Agota Kristof's The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie, but Herta Müller is far more stinging and yet poetic and evocative in her prose.
Green plums won't ripen, though.


Peeling the Union

What do Winston Churchill and David Hasselhoff, the Dalai Lama and Shakira (portrayed above), Albert Einstein and Pamela Anderson, Malcolm X and Diego Armando Maradona have in common?
It's easy. They all gave a speech at the self-proclaimed World's Most Famous Debauching Debating Society, the Oxford Union.

Quoting the Union's current president, Izzy Westbury: "Our speaker line-up continues to be something that other societies in Oxford, Britain and across the world can only dream of".
And miss Westbury has very good reasons to be proud of it.
One need only consider that the 2011 Michaelmas Term debate season beginning on Sunday 9th October was opened by Katie Price. I mean, yeah, Katie Price. No less a person than Katie Price. Ka-tie. Pri-ce. Formerly known as Jordan.
According to the Union's programme "she is everywhere - you can't help but know who she is". Do you? If you don't, you shouldn't despair. Just keep in mind that this is Oxford. Only the best ones are addressed here. But a pic may help in clearing up your mind.

A recent snapshot of Miss Price out of a members only club

"Everyone should work for a living" said Katie Price - A powerful attack to the unemployed and those getting benefits or rather a strong defence to The Sun's page 3 girls and teenage lingerie models? - it was later debated at the Union's cocktail bar.

And it's not over yet.
If you missed what Katie Price talked about, you will have plenty of choices to hear and see some of the most significant orators of our time in the forthcoming weeks.
Behold! The Junoesque (but extremely clever, eh!) Sky Sports host Hailey McQueen will be at the Union on 8th November. The topic of her speech is still undisclosed, but some deep throats say that she will talk either of quantum mechanics or football gossip. Unfortunately the brainy busty sensation Imogen Thomas, refused the Union's invitation for the same day having a previous engagement at her Mensa club.

The Hoff (here portrayed with his long-time partner) became famous on February 2011 for having delivered a feverish speech at the Union regarding alcoholics. A dedicated follower of both the Stanislavski system and the bottle, Mr Hasselhoff took the floor while completely drunk.

But Hailey is only the most promising name on a list that includes a wild bunch of "simply splendid speakers" as the Union's leaflet puts straight.
The first appointment will be on 26th October with director Roland Emmerich who's working on a romantic comedy set up in Oxford starring Miley Cyrus and Richard Dawkins and involving the accidental sinking of the British isles in a minor cataclism. In the following weeks the presidents of Finland, Macedonia and Mongolia (special discount, see 3 pay 2) will pop up together with music stars Snow Patrol ("One of the biggest bands of the last century") and The Hanson ("MMMBop!").

It's utterly true how these people cannot compete with the likes of icons of contemporary pop culture such as pornstars Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson who both spoke in Oxford years ago, but I think one has to reckon that the guys at the Union are doing their best.

So, in case you are a student at Oxford University, you might give them a chance and join the Union here. A Life Membership costs only 218 £ and it's "an Excellent investment". You won't miss the next pornstar live!


Norman Davies - Heart of Europe

Rating 7.3

Pretty good summary of 1100 years of Polish history written by the author of the monumental God's Playground.

This book has a peculiarity: it goes backwards leaving out everything that happened after Jerzy Buzek. Be prepared, then.

The first edition of the book was published in the mid 1980s, therefore the account starts from this period to get back as far as the almost mythological Mieszko I and the beginning of the Piast dinasty.

Nevertheless, in case you own one of the last editions of Heart of Europe, you will find a couple of extra chapters at the end which, although subverting the top-bottom chronology of the book, are very welcome. Here Davies investigates over the record of the 7 prime ministers Poland had in 7 years between 1989 and 1996 and tries to foresee what would have come next.

What I liked in this book is that there are bits of "human touch" while talking about the "poetry side" of early Solidarnosc in Gdansk or writing about Polish culture and literature citing important names such as Rey, Słowacki, Sienkiewicz, Konwicki, Miłosz, Szymborska and Huelle.

I kind of like Davies' writing style which has just this tendency of being too dry and self-satisfied sometimes, but confirms how this guy is probably the maximum living expert on Polish history.

The only thing I found a bit disturbing is how Norman Davies talks about himself ("the author") in third person at some point underlining how this God's Playground of him is considered "one of the books of the Millennium" (I beg your pardon: by whom?). Which could even be true, but still a lower profile and a little more demureness may help this superstar of historian!


Andrzej Stasiuk - On the Road to Babadag

Rating 7.8

There are 167 stamps on Andrzej Stasiuk's passport. Or, at least, there were so many when this book was published. Probably Mr Stasiuk hit 200 stamps in the meantime. And I would be glad if he did, for each of these stamps has a story to tell and the author of "On the Road to Babadag" is the right person to do that.

What you will find here is the perfect combination of the celebrated Danube by Claudio Magris with the Eastern Europe travels of Michael Palin's Europe recently televised by the BBC. And yet, in Michael Palin's words, Stasiuk is "less fucking pompous" than the Italian writer, while Claudio Magris would find Babadag more "Hapsburg influenced and quintessentially Central-European" than the ex-Python's travelogues.

What Stasiuk managed to accomplish here is stunning. This book is an act of love for those wide lands between the Carpathian mountains and the Black Sea spanning over 5 official countries (Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Moldova) a self-proclaimed one (Transnistria) and a Gypsy stateless but very evident community.
There are also a couple of detours, when Stasiuk drove through Slovenia and visited Albania but in both cases they seem linked to the road which leads to Babadag as to prove a common Eastern ground made of dilapidated bunkers, rented rooms, watermelons and beer for chasing liquor.

Stasiuk managed to map a land where melancholy and initiative, bribing and altruism, alcoholics and essayist come with hands clasped sometimes being the right and back of the same hand.
A land which is crisscrossed by solemn rivers, bumpy roads and where half-dismantled borders pop up in the corn fields. There where the likes of Emil Cioran and Danilo Kiš were born.

What the author seeks for are places where time is "just a piece of eternity you cut out for your own consumption". As Stasiuk puts it, the heart of his Europe doesn't beat in Vienna, or Budapest, or Krakow. And this heartbeat cannot be found even in Ljubljana, Chisinau or Bratislava, but it rather pulses in Husi, Sulina, Szolnok. Or Dukla. Or Babadag.
Only driving to and through this immemorial and yet vaguely known cut-out Europe avoiding any large town on his sight, Andrzej Stasiuk can find what he is looking for.

"On the Road to Babadag" is the written proof of a world that will always be torn apart and yet somehow cohesive, with ferries travelling back and forth the Danube banks or connecting Constanța with Istanbul. I went aboard and let the time flow. For my own delighted consumption.


The Pythons Autobiography

Rating 7.7

...and now for something completely different, let me introduce you the Pythons autobiography by...the Pythons themselves!


What you can find in this book is:
John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and yes, ladies and gentlemen, Graham Chapman live-dead from the afterlife talking about the twenty years they spent together.

What they did earlier.
What they did after.

Who they were before Monty Python.
Their provincial childhoods. Their boarding and public schools. The dichotomy between an Oxford University and a Cambridge University education (with just a brief interlude at the Occidental College - thank you Terry G).

Action. Surprise. A hint of Ambition.
Emotion. Delight. George Harrison.
The rise and fall of a sublime world of clever entertainment provided by blasphemous - pardon - heretical entertainers.

And much more.
They wrote celestial songs such as the crossover hit "Always look at the Bright Side of Life" or the Catholic standard "Every Sperm is Sacred" standing on the top of the seminary charts for 39 weeks after its release and which Benedict - Benny - XVI has recently put #1 on his iPope tunes.

And it's not over yet, mesdames et messieurs.
They revamped the jolly good cult of the Spanish Inquisition.
They gave a new meaning to Life and a new life to Death. They managed to elevate the mundane post-Victorian squalor of a tasteless salmon mousse to a cracking social icebreaker.

Are they the same Monty Python who searched for the Holy Grail?
Yes, they were.
Are they the same Monty Python who portrayed a complete and utter history of Britain?
Yes, Sir.
It's them.

They were great. They set the scene. They did pretty well, didn't they?
Yes, but how they made it for twenty years?

(Twenty years, oh good Lord!)

Let's face it. They were underdogs in overcoats.
Graham Chapman drank. John Cleese was in it for the money. Terry Gilliam never went to Oxbridge, Eric Idle was...well, idle, Terry Jones was Welsh and Michael Palin is now making documentaries for the Bbc.

Plus - or minus - in this book Chapman (from post-mortem) quarrels with Idle who criticizes Cleese who throws shit over Palin who doesn't like Jones who quarrels with Gilliam who hates them hall (but especially Cleese) being gladly re-hated.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you will love this book.
It's absolutely Pythonesque. It glitters wit. It's savage. It's pure Monty.
And nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition!


Vladimir Nabokov - Speak, Memory

Rating 7.4

Vladimir Nabokov is one of those geniuses I always felt somehow uneasy about.
What I knew about him? Very little.

During his literary career, Nabokov wrote ten novels in Russian, nine in English together with hundreds of short stories and poems.
And what I had read of all this astonishing production? Just two things. "Lolita", of course (and quite late) together with "The Eye" (too soon).

That said, I came across this self-biography after finding out somewhere that this is one of the best self-biographies ever written or something. Which is partly true.

"Speak, Memory" gives the utter confirmation that Nabokov was a peculiar character with whom it was probably quite uneasy to deal with. In these 15 plus one chapters recounting his early life in Russia and then the time he spent as an ex-pat in the UK, France and Germany after the Bolshevik revolution, Nabokov is often so self-satisfied about his childhood and young adult years to be almost unbearable.

A whole chapter is dedicated to the heraldry of the Nabokoff/Nabokov family explaining who was who and whom married whom since the 18th century with a sort of elegy of patronymics and pointing out the powerful connections Vladimir's ancestry had with the Russian and Central European peerage.
Moreover, Nabokov is not afraid to tell us his little absurd idiosyncrasies which show a certain amount of snobbery like when he admits that he cannot stand sleeping because everybody do it and it's a waste of productive time or when he blame either Cambridge University life or those who cannot get the importance of his butterfly-cataloging hobby.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this unusual attitude towards his readers, this book is rather interesting and unique. One can discover a lot of amazing tiny details about Nabokov here. We may think this man was a genius incapable of looking at mundane business and daily activities, but this wouldn't be accurate.
For Vladimir Nabokov enjoyed not only hunting high and low the fields of Crimea, Cambridgeshire and Massachusetts in search of an unknown sub-specie of Polyommatus butterfly or creating chess puzzles for the grandmasters, but also playing tennis and standing between the posts on a football pitch practicing the noble art of goalkeeping.

By reading "Speak, Memory" we meet a grand writer and a rather isolated person, but also a very sensitive human being. An author who admits his own problems in relating with his brothers and fellow students, who had love failures and wherever he went lived with a perpetual feeling of disillusion.
It's true how Nabokov lingers a bit too much on certain unimportant issues, but he was probably one of the few who could do it with such an excellent writing style and without being reproached to get over himself.
This is not a complete self-biography dealing only with the first 40 years of Nabokov life and leaving out the most successful part of his existence as an author, but it's a fascinating reading, family heraldry apart.

PS: There is tiny precious butterfly named Eupithecia Nabokovi - McDunnough, flying over Utah since 1946. Where the Russian-born writer failed in being awarded of that Nobel Prize for Literature he would have deserved to get, at least he managed to leave a sign in biomimicry.
And I think that the child we meet in "Speak, Memory" would have put the delicate and charming pattern of a butterfly wing over the cold and monochromatic surface of a medal.


Woody Allen - Without Feathers

Rating 7.0

There is a moment around mid 1990s in which I discovered Woody Allen and at the same time lost track of everything else he subsequently did as a director (he worked quite a lot with Scarlett Johansson, didn't he?). It happened just after the release of Bullets over Broadway.

It was 1994 and I remember how I was having Easter vacations in Rome with my parents. We were caught in a rainy Easter in typical Roman fashion and one evening we decided that it was pointless strolling around under downpours. Therefore, as it was too late to find shelter in any museum, we went straight to watch the last Woody's movie.
I think that was also the last time I went to the cinema together with my parents. I was 12 years old and kind of a bore. My parents were both big fans of Mr Allen while I was vaguely aware of his background thanks to the Soon-Yi affair that was hugely gossiped around Italy.
I don't have any special memory of Bullets over Broadway apart from the fact it was rather gloomy, with a few jokes which I was able to get, but overall ok.

And yet from that moment on, I started watching more Woody Allen. I went backwards as far as Take the Money and Run and particularly liking Bananas, Annie Hall, Zelig and - on a far different level - Manhattan.
Manhattan became quite soon the first movie I watched more than twice and also the first movie I watched in original language (with English written subtitles to get it better) due to that awful dubbing business which made three generations of Italians unable to get any English.
I briefly fell in love with Diane Keaton (!), quoted too many times Muriel Hemingway's final sentence "Not everybody gets corrupted" and still know large bits of Manhattan by heart.
When a few years ago I heard the Italian dubbed version by mere coincidence I couldn't tolerate it. They simply cut most of the Isaac Davies / Woody Allen brilliant lines, probably thinking that our local audience was too stupid to get the jokes about, say, the August Strindberg Award or the references to Ingmar Bergman and Gustav Mahler.

Without Feathers came out in 1975, four years after Bananas and four years before Manhattan in the same year in which Mr Allen directed Love and Death, which I've never seen. According to the cover of the book, this is supposed to be "The Hilarious Bestseller by Woody Allen". And it is, at some point. I mean, it certainly sold quite a lot.
As for being hilarious, I wouldn't be that sure. In its best moments Whithout Feathers is outrageously funny and witty, but there were also several pages that I couldn't help but skip.

Certainly "The Whore of Mensa" is a gem, just like "The Scrolls", "A Guide to some of the Lesser Ballets" and "Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts" are all very high and classic standards of Woody's repertoire. But the almost Dickensian "God" and the Beckettesque-Pirandellian "Death", the two plays that cover half of this thin book, are far too long-winded and wordy for my taste. I guess how they would sound better while performed on stage than black printed on paper.
Moreover, there are a few minor episodes in this book which simply give no justice to the talent of Mr Allen like the amateurish "Slang Origins" and that tedious parody of Strindberg which is "Lovberg's Women Considered".

Still, this is a book that in its best parts will make you laugh quite a lot if you like what early Allen brought on the big screen in the golden 1970s and silver 1980s. While if you're looking for the less stressfully self-obsessed and more continentally-sophisticated Allen that came out of the 1990s leaving his beloved New York behind for London, Venice and Barcelona, Without Feathers is definitely not kosher.